From Blue to Purple

Today, I’m writing an article over 5 years in the making.

I started training Jiu Jitsu seriously in November of 2015, after an injury had sidelined me from lifting weights for a bit, and I thought- “oh, I’ll go back to doing Jiu Jitsu, that wasn’t as hard on body.” *cue raucous canned laughter track*

I had the usual Jiu Jitsu experience as an athletic, strong white belt. It took me forever to learn how to calm down, to quit “muscling” every movement, and to realize my focus was on survival and proper movement, and not “winning” every roll.

In June of 2018, I received my blue belt in Jiu Jitsu after around two years of training consistently as a white belt.

You can read the first article in this series, From White to Blue, here.

Getting my blue belt felt like such a huge moment for me- the concrete recognition from a black belt I respected a lot, an acknowledgement of all the time I’d put in, and the hard work.

The six months leading up to my blue belt test was the hardest I had ever trained, and made me realize that my education up to that point had been pretty moderate intensity- I was resolved to “turn it up” as a blue belt, and really earn my place.

Life had other things in mind.

I competed the week after receiving my belt, only adding to my losing streak at an IBJJF D.C. Open, but my training was going well until a series of injuries to first my elbow, then my knee put me off the mats for nearly 8 months.

I had also developed bicep tendonitis to a chronic point in my left arm that had me unable to make grips by the end of training, punctuated by agonizing pain forcing a long ice-down laying on my back following every hard randori session.

In short, I was having a rough go of it, stayed stubborn, kept brawling, and paid the price for it.

I couldn’t figure out how to get out of the trap that I’d temporarily escaped as a white belt- I was training “all out” all the time, and had gotten stuck in the “win or lose” mentality that was actually keeping me hurt, and keeping me from learning anything.

I came back to the mats in early August of 2020, this time with a completely different focus, not of my own making thrust on me:


The private club I run alongside my brother Matthias, Devotion Jiu Jitsu, had lost my brother, a Pan Am champion purple belt, as well as our regular black belt instructor, and at the same time, had a whole influx of new white belts.

Someone had to pick up the slack and show these new students Jiu Jitsu- and there simply wasn’t anyone else.

With the blessing of one of my close friends, a Carlson Gracie Jr. black belt, I began teaching his curriculum at Devotion 5 nights a week, and he would drop in at least once a month to check progress and give out stripe promotions and more advanced training.

By December, I felt I wasn’t making any progress, just teaching white belt stuff every night and then having mostly easy rolls- even if we rolled for an hour after class, it was mostly white belts.

But, three things were happening.

One, teaching technique was forcing me to review everything I learned as a white belt, and then be able to articulate and show it correctly- this closed a few holes in my game that I wasn’t even aware of.

Second, I started rolling “easy,” having fun with the white belts, and working on things that I hadn’t really tried before when all the rolls were “brawls,” and I felt my style start to become more fluid, and tighter at the same time.

Third, they started learning.

White belts who were totally blank canvas in August were like mean little rattlesnakes by December- a few notable ones were picking things up fast, and if I wasn’t paying attention, they’d take my back or throw moves they watched on YouTube at me.

Some of them were really dedicated, and trained hard with me, forcing me to come up with new stuff to show them as they started competing.

I went back to competing as well, breaking my losing streak and taking bronze at an IBJJF open in Atlanta.

Bronze isn’t what I was hoping for, but there was another moment of confidence in there.

The guy I lost to, a tall, strong Renzo Gracie NY blue belt, took the match by 2 points after a long, tough struggle- he had previously just medaled at PanAms, and cleaned house on the whole division after beating me, and received his purple belt on the podium.

The match, although I lost, let me know something important- I lost, but not in some overwhelming defeat. Just a few points, in a match I knew I should have performed better in- and I’d only been back on the mats for 4 months, and hadn’t competed for years.

Taking a win at IBJJF Atlanta Open. Photo by Castlewolf Pictures

At the beginning of this month, January 2021, friends from all over were in town, and after a great session, I was surprised by being awarded my purple belt.

This time, I didn’t feel the same elation and acknowledgement.

Instead, I felt blindsided and unprepared- I had planned to compete for another 6 months or so as a blue belt, take home some serious medals, and mentally prepare for “getting close” to my purple belt.

In a way, I actually felt “derailed” by the belt promotion.

I didn’t feel ready for it, or worthy of it. As it was tied on, I felt like a fake.

Many other purple belts, I’ve discovered, had this exact reaction to their promotion as well, and the advice I received from my long time black belt pal was probably what I needed to hear:

“You’re in over your head, for sure. In Jiu Jitsu, most people always will be. You just have to decide whether or not you’ll rise to the occasion and show you deserve to wear it, or you’ll quit.”

Later, as the Wolves engaged in our monthly practice of Symbel, the Germanic tradition of speaking your mind during ritualized drinking rounds, my brother Matthias spoke about it, and some of what he said really crystalized things for me.

“Jiu Jitsu is not just about getting better at techniques. It’s about building character along with the skill.”

He explained that even if my skill level isn’t world class, my promotion was given both to acknowledge an advancement in technique, but also for taking over instruction of the white belts, putting my own training and progression on the back burner for a while so others could make progress.

For showing resilience in coming back to the art after serious injuries and trips to the ER, and so on.

Jiu Jitsu has been a pretty tough road for me, and although I may never find the same love for it as my brother has, it has been a very important instructor in my life- and certainly the hardest thing I’ve ever done is simply sticking with it.

Here’s a few things I took away from my time at Blue to Purple:

– Stop brawling all the time.

Probably the most important thing I am still having to learn.

As a 36 year old practitioner of martial arts, you can’t pretend to be 26. Your body simply cannot handle the same pace or intensity day after day, and if you don’t find a way to temper your training, it will break down on you.

Avoiding serious injury is a huge part of sticking with the path, so you have to find new ways to train. Decide how many days you’ll do hard sparring, and on the others, keep things mellow, or sit out a few rounds and watch.

Play little games when you roll, like “give up the back and escape” rather than simply focusing on “winning.” Take your victories where you can, and realize that being able to continue training injury free is the biggest win there is.

– Compete more often.

Hate having to say the same thing I did from white to blue- “life” got in the way a lot and I was not able to compete as often as I should have during my time as a blue belt.

I feel like I missed a lot of opportunities to really improve my game due to the added pressure of looming competition. As a purple belt I will do my best not to cheat myself out of this aspect of the martial art.

– Train more on the road.

I travel a lot, but often I use that as a break from the daily grind. This past year I had the opportunity to train at a few different places on the road, and also made some new friends while doing so.

Going to new schools and seeing how people train is invaluable to estimate your own training schedule, intensity level, style, and so on, as well as the obvious benefit of learning new things and pitting yourself against people you’re not used to training with.

Be more diligent at understanding concepts instead of just learning “moves.”

Even through blue belt, I feel like I was just grabbing at random puzzle pieces, learning techniques and trying to figure out how they fit together.

Some of this was due to where and how I trained, and unavoidable- some schools teach in a structured way and others are more chaotic.

I wish I had been able to train at a place that focused heavily on concepts and a structured learning style, but that wasn’t the case- sometimes you need to take things into your own hands and structure your own progress.

Learning and really absorbing concepts, the “why” of things rather than just the “how” is a really valuable way to grasp the deeper elements of a subject. It makes you more able to transfer that same concept elsewhere, and see the connective tissue of the whole thing, instead of just seeing one move at a time.

This is one of my major goals at purple belt, to really begin absorbing and transferring concepts from one thing to another more fluidly.

– Make it beautiful.

A gamechanger for me was watching Rafael Mendes videos, both of him competing as well as just rolling with students at various schools.

His style is so “effortless,” and so beautiful to watch, I was incredibly inspired.

I think watching Jiu Jitsu masters who have a style that you admire or want to emulate before you train absolutely makes you a better and more mindful student of the art.

I want to develop a Jiu Jitsu that is fluid, smooth, and beautiful to watch, rather than just only “effective.” It is an art, and I’d like mine to be minimal, graceful, and pleasing to apply and to see. 

– Don’t rush, don’t quit. 

This is the obvious one, but it bears repeating. You’re not sprinting to the finish line with Jiu Jitsu. It is absolutely a marathon.

Don’t rush- every training session should be treated with the same focus and attention- absorb what you can, write it down, enjoy your time on the mats and don’t forget to play around a little.

Keeping an attitude of unhurried meditation in class will keep you on the Way, ideally will keep you from getting injured, and will make sure you’re getting something out of each day. 

It is definitely a tough art, and it will absolutely test your fortitude, your physical and mental endurance, and ultimately- your heart.

Right now, I am in a dangerous place, which is the middle.

I know I’ve come a long way, but that there is still a longer journey ahead than what’s behind me, which is a daunting knowledge-

But I also know if I simply don’t quit, in a couple years, I’ll be sitting here, still feeling like I don’t know much, penning “Purple to Brown.”

Keep at it.